On a crisp fall day last year, I brought a group of second graders into the woods behind the school where I teach, armed with clipboards, paper, and pencils. Our activity was a “mindfulness walk,” and as we strolled we paused at various points along the trail so that the students could perch on rocks and logs and pay attention to the sights, sounds, smells, and feels of nature (tastes were precluded for obvious reasons). Afterward we circled up in a field and debriefed about the sensory highlights we’d just experienced, from the wind rustling through the trees to the hawk that thrilled us with a startlingly close flyby, as if assessing the potential of carrying off a second grader for a very large snack.
When I first began to teach over a dozen years ago, mindfulness still carried a certain allure. It hadn’t quite entered the zeitgeist, so students didn’t really know what to expect when it was time for a mindfulness activity, and that sense of delving into the unknown captured the spirit of a practice intended to awaken and enliven. Shunryu Suzuki, the Soto Zen monk and teacher who helped popularize Zen in the US, famously said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” All my students had beginner’s minds in those days. Now, however, mention of a mindfulness activity may elicit groans and eye rolls. Too often it has been used as a method of control, or even punishment, with stillness and silence prioritized over radical presence. For many of my students it has the unfortunate stigma of being, in a word, boring.
But mindfulness practice, as Willa Blythe Baker, the founder of the Natural Dharma Fellowship, points out, began in nature. The Buddha, after all, attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. “There’s so many examples in meditation texts of yogis and monks seeking forests and rivers and lakes as their inspiration for practice,” explained Baker when we connected on the subject of mindfulness and nature in 2017. Monks traditionally did not have permanent residences. They often dwelled in forests or caves, except during the monsoon season, when they gathered to practice as a community. It was this season of gathering that ultimately led to the establishment of monasteries and to what some scholars have called the “domestication” of Buddhism. Originally, to be a mindfulness practitioner was to ramble, and practice itself was not limited to the seated posture.
The Metta Sutta, a Buddhist sutta on loving kindness, states, “Standing, walking, sitting, or lying down/As long as one is devoid of torpor/One would resolve upon this mindfulness.” In his commentary on this verse, Buddhist scholar Andrew Olendzki wrote, “These four [positions] are meant to cover all the positions one can place the body in, thus conveying the idea that both loving kindness and mindfulness can be practiced at all times, without exception.” As University of Virginia religious studies professor Erik Braun explained in a 2014 Tricycle article, the widespread popularity of mindfulness as a seated and still activity in a climate controlled setting might in fact be due to the British invasion of Burma in 1885, and the last ditch efforts of Ledi Sayadaw and others to preserve Buddhism by spreading the practice to the laity. Prior to that moment, Braun wrote, meditation was considered appropriate “for a rare few living in the isolation of jungles or mountain caves.”
It’s time to rewild mindfulness.
Adam Ortman, the Mindfulness Director at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Austin, Texas, favors utilizing something that is often left out of the modern mindfulness equation: fun. A guiding question for Ortman is, “What feels alive in the classroom and can we give space to follow it?” In order to promote this sense of aliveness, Ortman uses a teaching style unlikely to be mirrored in a traditional monastic setting. He listens with delight, asks follow up questions, and tries to be unreservedly positive about his students’ experiences.
“The more ‘authentically sourced’ strands of mindfulness are going to fall flat in a school community because they are derived from systems of training that are meant for monastics who are intentionally trying to separate themselves from the flow and chaos of lay life,” Ortman told me when we connected over Zoom. But “if something’s working in the lived experience of an individual, then it’s authentic.”
Rather than treating mindfulness as a separate entity removed from the fabric of the school, Ortman will often weave it into other subjects. He has conducted “mindfulness labs” in science classes, assessing how essential oils impact energy and mood. Or, if an English class is doing a poetry unit, Ortman might spend time with them at a local wilderness area tuning deeply into the senses to get the creative juices flowing.
Unsurprisingly, it is precisely this kind of embodied awareness in nature that has been a gateway to practice for so many. Dr. Christopher Willard, a psychologist and teacher at Harvard Medical School who has written a number of books on mindfulness for children and parents, found this out by asking adults at workshops to recall their first experience of being mindful before they heard the word “mindfulness.” Over the years he began to notice a consistent theme to these responses. “No one’s ever like, ‘I was playing a video game by myself or scrolling on Facebook,’” Willard told me. “It’s often something sensory. Nature always comes up. Digging in the garden and smelling the soil; looking at the embers of the fire; hearing the sound of the rain during a lightning storm.”
All of these moments, in which someone was able to connect through sensory awareness to the greater world around them, were not overly structured or still. They occurred naturally and often in nature. They also taught many of the people that Willard has worked with that mindfulness is not something exotic or inaccessible.
As Baker told me, “Many of the goals that we have in meditation practice are accomplished just by being in the natural world, especially in wild environments. A goal of meditation practice is to help us find space between our thoughts so we’re not glued to our mind as the most important part of our experience. The natural world does that too. It awakens us to our senses and our body.”
Indeed, a study by Stanford Researcher Gregory Bratman found that walking in nature, like meditation practice, can interrupt our tendency to ruminate. In nature we become embodied, focusing on our footfalls and the rush of sensory information that is less noticeable when practice occurs in our comfort (i.e. boredom) zones. Stepping outside those zones and into the great outdoors primes us to be present.
This isn’t to say there isn’t a place for teaching seated and still mindfulness techniques. Rather, those techniques may be most effectively taught when they are one arrow in a varied and vibrant quiver. Reducing mindfulness to its most sedentary posture is a surefire way to turn off a generation that could benefit immensely from a tool that can support them in so many ways, from reducing anxiety to boosting resilience and satisfaction. Rewilding mindfulness can open us once again to the many ways and manifold places in which it is possible to cultivate embodied awareness.
When walking in the woods with his own kids, Willard might let them know that the quieter they are, the more likely it is they will see animals. This can lead to the playful activity of “walking like a ninja,” with a high degree of focus. In his book The Way of Mindful Education, therapist and mindfulness expert Daniel Rechtshaffen explains that he often tells students they are going to “play” mindfulness: “There’s no homework, there’s no tests, and no way you could possibly get it wrong.”
On the debrief from my walk in the woods with my own students last fall, the responses to the activity ranged from silly to profound. Several students shared that they had smelled their own breath (it was mid-pandemic and everyone was masked), and we had a laugh, since this was definitely not wrong. And they felt many things, from the leaves crunching beneath their feet to the rough bark of a log upon which they sat. But one of the most memorable responses was also one of the simplest: one student reported feeling “happy.”
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